Gloves, mouth guards and chest protectors?

In October 1957, the inaugural All Japan Karate championships were held in Tokyo. Kanazawa Hirokazu was the kumite champion that day and it was reported that he achieved that feat with a broken wrist. In order to conceal his handicap and protect himself, Kanazawa used only keri waza (kicking techniques). His intention was just to win one fight, but he kept on winning and winning until he made it to the final. That single tournament launched him into legendary status, as well as putting karate-do on the launch pad from a sporting perspective. Such feats are unheard of today in contemporary sports karate.

As most people know, the World Karate Federation which is the most widely known karate organisation (sanctioned by the IOC) has been trying to get karate into the Olympics for decades. Where Judo (since 1964) and Taekwondo (since 2000*) have succeeded their karate peers have had to enviously look on from a detached view. The IOC needs to have a guarantee that the inclusion of any one sport into the Olympics can make money for the organisation. Therefore over the past couple decades, sponsorships from sports equipment manufacturers mainly Adidas, have reared its ugly head in tournament karate. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Several wholesale changes have been made to traditional karate tournaments to make them more “entertaining” to onlookers. Now this isn’t to say the older tournaments which utilised the shobu-ippon rule system were not entertaining. It is just that they mostly had fans from budo (martial arts) circles enthused. Thus came rise to the WKF point-sparring system; where 3 points (sanbon) are allotted for kicks to the head and takedowns with a finish in tandem, nihon (2 points) for a kick to the mid section and ippon (one point) for a punch to any part of the body above the belt. The old tournament system only awarded an ippon (full point) for a decisive technique with proper intent. In other words, if the technique was executed in a real-life situation the opponent would be incapacitated. Notice a striking difference?

The changes also altered the way kata were performed for competition, where techniques were either diluted, or even dramatised in order to add a garnishment to the performance. The WKF seemingly adopted the dual red/blue colour representations from Taekwondo. Therefore one opponent would wear a red belt, while the other a blue. If this wasn’t enough, matching gloves, shin pads and even foot protectors were included. So unless you were lucky to compete in one colour throughout a tournament, chances are you’d have to have all the gears in both colours thus doubling the profit suppliers make. The head gear and face masks have already found their way into traditional karate tournaments as children are mandated to wear them for their protection. Soon adults will have to add this to their armour as they go into “battle.”  When I was convinced that it couldn’t get any worse it did. Elite karate athletes, including males now wear chest protectors to compete.

This brings me back to my analogy at the start. How did karate evolve (regress?) from competitors being allowed to fight with broken limbs to having to wear a chest shield to thwart already padded fists?  The WKF ultimately has good intentions I suppose, as millions of karateka are motivated by competition and have the opportunity to compete on an international level. However wearing protection of any kind does defeat the purpose of budo training, because there are no gloves in the streets. But with legal stipulations taken into consideration, mouth guards and gloves are understood as mandatory. But there’s a thin line between protecting one from plausible physical injury and just being plain ridiculous. The JKA boys of 1960s fame knew nothing of groin cups and fore-arm guards. They conditioned their bodies, and practised their craft to the point that most injuries would be avoided.

The WKF are attempting to meet the IOC’s whims I suppose. It is sad to say that there will be no karate in London this summer or in Rio in 2016. Or is it? In hindsight Funakoshi Gichin, the father of modern karate, knew the dangers of tournament kumite; which is why he prohibited it. What he did not know was that when he finally sanctioned it, that it would be repackaged into this diluted version of the martial art. He is probably rolling in his grave right now.

*Taekwondo was an event used only for demonstration purposes at Seoul ’88 and Barcelona ’92.

Taylor 1st kyu

Safety first. What the average modern day sport karateka looks like today: a dummy.

2 thoughts on “Gloves, mouth guards and chest protectors?

  1. jaredwindover July 2, 2012 / 6:49 pm

    Great post. I started my training as a kid in a youth karate class where we didn’t spar until we were at green belt. At this point we bought foot gear, head gear, hand gear, shin gear, a cup and a mouth guard to do this. These things have been standard practice for sparring for me from those classes up to adult karate. I’ve been practicing Systema lately due to a temporary relocation, and there is no safety gear whatsoever. You get hurt. You hurt people. You also learn not to hit bony parts of the body (something that I should have known after ten years of karate, but why would I, having only practised with gloves on). You also learn that your body is vulnerable in many places besides the face and groin. You develop a deep sense of camaraderie with your training partners, because you’ve both agreed that you’ll risk getting hurt for the sake of learning something. I believe that Karate lost a lot of its relevance thanks to allowing the bubble-wrap generation of parents along with sponsors and manufacturers to dictate how the art should be practised. Now we have performance and tournament teams trying to give a sense of purpose to an art that never should have lost it in the first place.

    • hiranom20 July 3, 2012 / 12:57 am

      Thanks for the comment bro. And yes I agree with your post. I’m not totally against competition, but when its rules are contrary to the essence of the true art, then it’s counter-productive in my opinion. But say what; all we can do is train hard… osu!

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